Page 1: Biography
Public servant, military leader, writer
This biography, written by James Belich, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1990.
Thomas McDonnell, eldest son of Thomas McDonnell and his wife, Anna Patterson, was born probably some time between 1831 and 1833, possibly at Manila in the Philippines while his parents were on a trading voyage. His father, from County Antrim in Ireland, was an officer in the British navy. He had served in the Napoleonic wars, and then joined the East India Company in the profitable role of ship's captain. By 1828 he was a merchant and ship owner trading in various goods, including Chinese opium. On a visit to Sydney in 1831 he purchased a trading, timbermilling, and shipbuilding establishment at Hōreke, Hokianga, New Zealand.
His family seems to have remained at Sydney for most of the 1830s, during which time Thomas McDonnell senior developed his establishment at Hōreke. He built an imposing residence, The Cottage, which was surrounded by vineyards, orchards, employees' houses and, at one time, 17 cannon. He was an able but disputatious and pretentious man. He quarrelled with almost everyone of note in Northland, except his patron chief, Te Taonui. He claimed to have bought most of Hokianga, and to have charted most of New Zealand. He also hinted that he had been a commander or even post captain in the navy but a search of archives in London, later commissioned by his sons, showed that he had never risen beyond lieutenant.
On a visit to England in 1835 he secured an honorary appointment as Additional British Resident, but resigned after a dispute with the other Resident, James Busby. After another visit to England, around 1839, the family arrived in Wellington on the Jane in May 1841. In the following years Thomas McDonnell senior spent most of his time and money in litigation over his extensive land purchases, few of which were ever validated. By 1858 his Northland empire had collapsed, and soon afterwards he retired to Auckland, dying in 1864 after a fall from a horse.
Thomas McDonnell junior did not move to Hōreke until he was about eight, but the 12 years he spent there were of formative significance. With the help of the Popoto tohunga Toenga Pou, he learned the Māori language, together with such skills as the use of the taiaha. Thomas inherited most of his father's characteristics, but little of his money: 'I never received a penny from any human to commence life upon.' He appears to have fallen out with his father after the death of Anna McDonnell and left in 1853 to try his luck on the Victorian goldfields. After brief service with the Sydney gold escort and a spell of illness, he returned to New Zealand in 1855. Family influence obtained him a post in the Native Land Purchase Department under Alfred Domett, but he resigned because the pay was eight months late. He then tried his hand at sheepfarming in Hawke's Bay with his brother William. A third partner defrauded them and by 1862 McDonnell, broke again, was in Auckland appealing to Domett, now premier, for patronage. He was appointed interpreter to the resident magistrate at Thames, and panned for gold on the side. While he was inspecting his painfully acquired gold dust, a puff of wind blew it away. Thus in 1863 McDonnell had a series of lost opportunities behind him.
His career was saved by the outbreak of the Waikato war. On 14 August 1863 Domett obtained him a commission as sub-inspector (then equivalent to ensign) in the colonial defence force. Between periods of dreary garrison duty McDonnell saw active service at Rangiaowhia and Hairini in February 1864. He had previously distinguished himself in a bloodless but dangerous reconnaissance of Paparata in October 1863, in company with Captain Gustavus von Tempsky, whose acquaintance he had made at Thames. They remained close friends until a little before Tempsky's death. McDonnell was promoted captain on 18 March 1864.
For two years thereafter, with a five month interlude as acting resident magistrate in Waikato, McDonnell served with kūpapa forces in operations against the East Coast Kingites in April 1864, in Lieutenant General Duncan Cameron's Taranaki campaign from January to July 1865, in the East Coast expedition to Ōpōtiki from September to November 1865, and in Major General Trevor Chute's Taranaki campaign in January and February 1866. He was wounded in the ankle at Te Pūtahi on 7 January 1866. McDonnell's achievements in these operations are difficult to gauge, because European command of kūpapa was nominal; real leadership was exercised by the chiefs. Considering his ability to speak Māori, his willingness to lead from the front, and his charisma, however, McDonnell's influence may have been more than usually significant. His kūpapa had considerable success, notably in the Weraroa operation of 21 July 1865. McDonnell was rewarded with promotion to brevet major on 20 July 1865, and full major on 8 January 1866. He married Rose von Dadelzen at Auckland on 16 April 1866. The marriage was a happy one, but Rose became ill in mid 1868 and died on 7 March 1869.
In June 1866 McDonnell took command of the Pātea district. He was instructed to implement the survey of land nominally confiscated from Ngāti Ruanui. Ngāti Ruanui were desperate for peace, even at the cost of some land. But, motivated partly by rivalry with Civil Commissioner Robert Parris, McDonnell provoked war by attacking the village of Pokaikai on 1 August 1866. McDonnell was not directly responsible for the excesses of his drunken troops, which probably included the multiple rape of a wounded woman, but the surprise night attack on a village which had made peace was his doing. Despite the facts an 1868 parliamentary commission of inquiry exonerated him by two votes to one. Most colonists approved of his ruthlessness, and subsequent, largely successful, operations against Ngāti Ruanui from September to November 1866 further augmented his reputation.
McDonnell took his own allotment of confiscated land in the Pātea district, built a house, and began to farm, but was called away in early 1867 to fight in the Rotorua area against the forces of Waitaha prophet Hākaraia Mahika. Although he was successful, the campaign was unnecessarily brutal. He accomplished his next mission, an expedition to Hokitika to put down rioting Fenian goldminers, without bloodshed. He was promoted to lieutenant colonel on 25 April 1867 and appointed inspector in the new Armed Constabulary a month later.
McDonnell held his most important command during the war against Tītokowaru, which broke out in the Pātea district on 4 June 1868. He was put in charge of 1,000 men, and launched three cleverly conceived expeditions against Tītokowaru's base, Te Ngutu-o-te-manu. The first, on 10 and 11 August, failed to locate the place; the second, on 21 August, was partially successful; the third, on 7 September, was a complete disaster, although this was the result of Tītokowaru's genius rather than McDonnell's mistakes. The second in command, Tempsky, with whom McDonnell had quarrelled in the preceding weeks, was killed in the battle. Humiliated by the defeat, critical of his superiors and subordinates, and depressed by the illness of his wife, McDonnell wrote bitter, recriminatory letters to the government. As a consequence he was dismissed on 14 October. In December, burning for revenge against Tītokowaru, McDonnell apologised to the government and returned to the war as a subordinate of his hated rival, George Stoddart Whitmore. But he suffered another embarrassing defeat at The Peachgrove, near Te Karaka, on 18 February 1869, and resigned.
McDonnell had long been friendly with the influential politicians Isaac Featherston and Donald McLean, and when their faction replaced the Stafford ministry in June 1869 he was given command of operations against Te Kooti at Taupō. Only 100 of McDonnell's 700 troops were Pākehā, and he again found that his command of kūpapa was largely nominal. He claimed primary credit for the allied victory at Te Pōrere on 4 October, but in reality his contribution was no greater than that of Te Keepa Te Rangihiwinui and Hēnare Tomoana. In January 1870 McDonnell participated in a converging movement on Te Kooti's new position at Tāpapa, north of Taupō. He sprang the trap prematurely, and was surprised and checked by Te Kooti after initial success. He was severely reprimanded by McLean, and lost his command, this time for good.
McDonnell spent the remaining 30 years of his life lobbying for tangible recognition of his services in the form of medals, monetary grants and government employment. After five years in unsatisfactory employment purchasing Māori land, he went on leave to England in 1876 and was dismissed on his return. Although he acquired £690 in government grants and £1,400 worth of freehold property at Wanganui, he had increasing difficulty in supporting his family. He had married Henrietta Elise Lomax in Wellington on 9 April 1870; there were to be four children of the marriage. He set up as a Native Land Court interpreter and land agent at Whanganui in 1884, but without much success. His one triumph was receipt of the New Zealand Cross on 31 March 1886, after half a dozen previous applications had been rejected. He published fragmented memoirs in these years, together with a fanciful 'Māori history' of the wars (published in T. W. Gudgeon's The defenders of New Zealand), fathered on 'Kōwhai Ngutu Kākā'. He wrote with gusto and some flair, in a style which was marred by 'the fulsome egotism of the would be author' and an absolute refusal to accept any editorial advice. He died at Whanganui on 8 November 1899.
In his prime McDonnell was a flamboyant and colourful figure. His three brothers, William, George and Edward, all had military careers in the New Zealand colonial forces but were inconspicuous in comparison. Brave and physically powerful, he was skilled in bushcraft and the use of weapons. He flaunted his ability, often carrying two revolvers and indulging in mock duels using a taiaha against his comrades' swords: 'Von Tempsky was the only man whom I had tried that I could not touch'. He was immensely popular with his Pākehā troops and was capable of winning deep loyalty.
His pretensions made him less attractive to Māori subordinates. His Māori knowledge was substantial, but it was never as great as he imagined. He shared his father's conviction that force was ultimately the only argument which the Māori respected; he boasted of 'a kind of instinct which I seemed to have, whenever Māoris are concerned'. His vaunted Māori oratory, with its eccentric use of traditional metaphor, was as confusing to Māori listeners as to Pākehā.
From 1866 to 1868 'Fighting Mac' was the colony's leading soldier, and was regarded as the embodiment of Pākehā determination. This reputation was founded on his talent for self-aggrandisement and his widely approved lack of scruple as much as his courage, energy, and resourcefulness.